10 December 2012

Working Smarter - Managing Your Time

In the last post I talked about writing regularly and scheduling the tasks that are linked to our goals.  Time is our most precious commodity, so it is something we need to manage.

Let me make a confession here - I’ve never been much good at multi-tasking.  I used to feel a little guilty about admitting this, as most people seem to think of it as a good thing.  Yes, I can multi-task the automatic, easy things, but when it comes to an important project I need to concentrate on it. 

I’ve been encouraged in reading a few research studies that say multi-tasking makes us less efficient than when we focus on one project at a time, and that managing two tasks at the same time reduces the brainpower available for either task.  Apparently multi-tasking also boosts our levels of stress related hormones - not a good thing.

‘An interruption that breaks your concentration can cost you 10-20 minutes of lost focus.’   Imagine how much little you’re going to get done if you keep on flicking onto Facebook or Twitter or (add your own favourite site here!)

We all have lots of different things going on in our lives, and I often find myself flitting from one thing to another.  For simple automatic tasks it probably doesn't matter too much, but when it comes to those goals we've set, like finishing the first draft, or editing it, we need to be stricter with ourselves.  When we stop (for just a minute!) to look at an email or a website, it takes us time to get back into what we were originally doing, and of course that minute is never just one minute.

I used to teach personal efficiency programmes so I know most of the theory - though that doesn't necessarily make me great at actually doing it!  I started timing the little 'breaks'. You know the ones - I'll just look at this email, just have a quick look at Twitter/Facebook etc.  If you've ever timed yourself on these secondary activities you know how long they can take.  You promise yourself it will only be a moment, but it never is, and added to that is the time it takes to get back into your original task.

I mentioned in the last post about the eight weeks I had to finish Lives Interrupted.  At that point I decided to test a different way of working.  I worked for fifty-minute blocks, doing nothing other than write my novel.  I didn’t look at email or websites (not even for research), no phone calls, and I set an alarm so I didn’t have to worry about the time.  My focus was amazing.  I was often surprised when the alarm went off, and was stunned at how much I wrote during each of those fifty-minute periods.

I’d then have ten minutes to look at emails, take a break, get a drink or whatever else I wanted to do.  Then I’d set the alarm again and work for another fifty minutes.  My word count using this method was far better than it had ever been.

Setting these blocks of time worked whether I was writing the first draft, or editing subsequent drafts, and I use it for my contracting project work.  Developing training materials or a technical manual also needs extended periods of focus and concentration.

Now you might be thinking, if an interruption loses you time in focus why do you have a break at all.  The reason for that is we each have a limit on how long we can work without losing our focus anyway.  It will be different for each of us, but generally it’s around an hour.   

Work to your strengths, both in the time of day you write and the length of time.  I can jot down ideas for scenes, or snatches of dialogue in odd five-minute spaces, but I need a longer period of time to get into my writing.  

The next post we'll look at where and how you work.

Take yourself seriously and other people will.  

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